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Lawyer battles conflict over his interests

Since the days of the Civil War, the Snow family has been making its mark in Hernando County. The name still graces more than one county road, and the family holdings during the 19th century included the great Manor House on Chinsegut Hill, the oldest home in the county.

But it is the booming growth of present-day Hernando that has been so profitable for one family member, County Attorney Bruce Snow.

Since 1985 the county has issued millions of dollars in bonds to raise the money necessary to build needed courtrooms, roads and sewers.

Snow, who is 44, made nearly $658,000 in fees and expenses on those bond issues, in addition to his normal retainer as part-time county attorney, currently $72,000 a year. The total includes his fee for the county's controversial $300-million bond pool program.

"Can you get cheaper lawyers? Yes, Hernando County can get cheaper lawyers," said Snow. He said he has been effective in his job. "When you try and determine the value of a professional, how do you do that?"

For nearly 20 years, Snow's government work has been the cornerstone of his legal practice. While serving under contract as the county's chief legal adviser, Snow has been allowed to maintain a private practice, taking as a client at least one company doing business with the county.

County Commissioner Ginny Brown-Waite says it is an obscene example of small-town politics. "When you and I were learning ethics and civics, Bruce was learning whose relative was whose," she said. Snow says his private practice does not conflict with his county work.

With his genteel manner and soft-spoken drawl, Robert Bruce Snow seems as though he were designed by central casting to play a Southern lawyer. But his role has come under increasing scrutiny since Brown-Waite's election last fall.

She gained office with a reform platform that, among other things, had her calling for a change to a full-time county attorney and collecting resumes of lawyers interested in replacing Snow.

Things became hotter for Snow after it was revealed in April that he had collected a $435,000 fee for the $300-million construction loan program he helped design. The program, conceived in 1986, never has made a loan to Hernando or any other community. But it has netted $16-million in fees for its organizers and more than $1-million for the county.

Commissioners looked at the program as a way to pay for the county jail and other projects. But because of interest rates and the way the pool program was structured, they never used it. And each time the county went to the bond market to finance new construction, Snow's ultimate fee grew.

Although the program never has made a loan, Snow said it has been a success because it serves as a hedge against rising interest rates and gives the county a back-up source for financing if needed.

He said there was nothing wrong with him giving advice on a program that generated fees for him. And Snow said his fees were within industry standards.

Public records show that Snow and his wife, Cynthia Manuel Snow, were facing nearly $35,000 in unpaid federal tax claims at the time the attorney was trying to get the county pool program off the ground.

Records also show that the larger of those claims _ a $29,385.03 tax lien against the Snows for unpaid income tax from 1978, 1981 and 1982 _ was settled on Nov. 20, 1986, six days after Snow collected his first $200,000 payment from the bond pool program.

"I've had, from time to time, like any other taxpayer, disagreements with the Internal Revenue Service," Snow said. He said he did not need the bond-pool fee to pay off the debt.

Snow has weathered criticism in the past, such as for representing simultaneously the county and the health-care company that leased the county's hospital and ran its ambulance service.

Or for defending an open-ended county contract that funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to his wife's uncle's engineering firm.

Snow survives because, in part, he possesses a friendliness, sophistication and intelligence unsurpassed in Hernando government. He is as comfortable discussing the nature of democracy as he is analyzing the Hernando High School football team's backfield, where he once played quarterback.

Like many attorneys, Snow often is accused of being verbose. But he is not above poking fun at himself.

"Going back to Genesis: In the beginning, the world was born without form," Snow said, touching off chuckles as he made a recent report to the commission. "Well, since that time there are some complications which have occurred that necessitate me speaking with you today."

That engaging personality is one reason that even his critics have a difficult time challenging Snow.

Commissioner Brown-Waite keeps in her office a brown paper bag. She says it is for Snow to wear over his head when he comes in to talk to her, so she does not fall victim to his seductive charm.

The bag has eye holes. But it has two additional cut-out sections as well. They are there, Brown-Waite says, "so he can talk out of both sides of his mouth."

Recent criticisms of the bond pool, which Snow defends as wise financial planning, have threatened his smooth demeanor. "For a change, I think I've been criticized for something that we did right," he told commissioners.

Brown-Waite's call for a legal adviser answering only to the commission and free of outside conflicts is being echoed all over the state, said Bill Roberts, general counsel for the Florida Association of Counties.

"I can't give you any precise numbers, but what is happening is there is a growing trend for counties to have full-time county attorneys," Roberts said. His home county, Leon, went to that system several months ago.

Generally, it is Florida's smaller rural counties that have part-time legal representation, he said. The system permits the communities to benefit from legal expertise it could not afford on a full-time basis, Roberts said. "You can make good arguments both ways," he said.

Hernando's neighbors to the north and south have full-time lawyers. Citrus County, with a population less than Hernando's 100,000, pays Larry Haag $69,858 a year.

Pasco, with a population three times larger than Hernando's, pays its attorney, Ben Harrill, $87,750 a year.

Because he is a county employee, he is not paid extra for trying cases in court or advising Pasco when it issues bonds, as Snow's contract with Hernando permits.

For instance, when Pasco issued $131-million in bonds in 1989 to pay for its new garbage incinerator, Harrill earned nothing more than his normal salary.

Hernando Commission Chairman Harold Varvel said the county never could afford to hire Snow full-time, but that his knowledge of county operations remains vital. "I have real problem with saying we don't need Bruce anymore," Varvel said.

The 24-year-old son of a former Hernando County commissioner, Snow was less than a year out of law school at the University of Florida when he was appointed county attorney in 1972.

The sleepy county had no top administrator, so it fell to Snow to oversee the commission's projects, write grant applications and guide the formation of its water and sewer system.

Since then the county's population has grown five-fold. Commissioners and administrators have come and gone. One full-time attorney and later a second came aboard in recent years.

The one constant has been Snow, who now directs the county's legal staff, though he technically is not a county employee.

His retainer when he was hired in 1972 was just $2,500, he said. Almost eight years after taking that job, the 32-year-old attorney and his wife listed a net worth of $363,099, according to financial records Snow filed during a successful drive to start a Citrus County radio station.

Today Snow remains in a web of political and financial relationships with the old-line powers that Brown-Waite and others say wield too much influence in Hernando.

His wife's uncle is Gene Manuel, the former county and Brooksville city engineer whose Coastal Engineering Associates Inc. firm has won millions of dollars in government business.

Snow is a business partner with James H. Kimbrough, the president of SunBank and Trust Co. in Hernando and Citrus and son-in-law of bank chairman Alfred A. McKethan.

Together with several Manuel family members, Snow and Kimbrough own radio stations WWJB in Brooksville and WXCV-FM in Crystal River.

Through the years, Snow's financial holdings have included real estate and a 40-percent interest in a Brooksville dairy farm that was liquidated in 1984 while owing the Farmers Home Administration $500,000 in unpaid loans, according to court records and filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

Roy Snow, a county commissioner from 1953 to 1966, said his son has been victimized through the years by "trivia and trash" stirred up by newspapers and disgruntled citizens.

"People that know him, and know him intimately, know what an outstanding man he is and what his character is," Roy Snow said. "And I'm proud of him."